The Future of China’s Foreign Policy After the 19th Party Congress

Peter Liu
Vol. 39 Associate Editor

China revealed in the 19th Party Congress the new members of the Politburo Standing Committee. This Congress heralds the beginning of President Xi Jinping’s second five-year term. During a president’s first term, the members of this Committee are holdovers from the previous administration, appointed by the outgoing leader. It is during the second term that a president is fully empowered to pursue his own agenda, as he fills the Politburo Standing Committee with his own allies.

While former leaders typically identify a successor from among these new appointments, Xi Jinping has not made any such indication.[1] Experts have speculated that Xi may seek to change the party constitution and pursue a third term. Regardless, Xi has fully consolidated his power and cemented his position as China’s strongest leader since Deng Xiaoping.[2] President Xi now has the political capital to double down on his vision of China as a global power. As he made clear during his three-hour address to the Party Congress, he sees this moment as “a new historic juncture in China’s development”—and himself as the man to seize it.[3]

Xi’s desire to achieve the “China Dream,” defined as the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” is categorically distinct, in scope and ambition, from that of his predecessors.[4] Whereas previous Chinese leaders played down the world’s most populous nation as “developing” or “poor,” Xi unashamedly called China a “great power” or “strong power” 26 times in his opening speech at the Party Congress.[5] The 19th Party Congress thus marks a new era for Chinese foreign policy, especially in the context of the existing territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Control of the South China Sea & International Law

Control of the South China Sea remains a critical component of Xi Jinping’s vision of China as a great power. Not only does control of this region implicate nationalist sentiments,[6] but it also addresses a strategic vulnerability. China maintains land borders with 14 other countries, but its economy depends on maritime trade, with much of that trade passing through the South China Sea. Over 64 percent of China’s maritime trade, worth $1.47 trillion, transited the waterway in 2016. In comparison, only 14% of the United States’ maritime trade passed through the region.[7] While there are several major transit routes or sea lines of communication (SLOC) that offer entry into the South China Sea – the Sunda Strait and the Lombok Strait among them – the Strait of Malacca is by far the most widely used. It is the shortest and therefore most economical passageway between the Pacific and Indian Oceans.[8] There are a variety of scenarios that could disrupt shipping traffic and endanger commercial vessels passing through the Strait of Malacca. Most concerning to China is the potential blockade of these SLOCs by the United States in the event of a Sino-US crisis. A China that conceives itself as a “great power” would find such vulnerability unacceptable. Xi boldly declared that China “is resolved to never give up its own legitimate rights and interests” and would never “swallow the bitter fruit of damage to its own interests.”[9]

With China’s navy still lagging significantly behind that of the United States’ in both equipment and experience,[10] China seeks to mitigate its vulnerability by developing asymmetric advantages. In recent years, China has undertaken drastic efforts to dredge and reclaim thousands of square feet in the South China Sea. Its construction of artificial islands and infrastructure enables China to deploy aircraft, missiles, and missile defense systems in the South China Sea itself, vastly boosting China’s power projection capabilities.[11]

The construction of these artificial islands, however, rattled China’s neighbors. In 2013, the Philippines filed an arbitration case contesting the legality of China’s territorial claims. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruled against China on this matter, declaring that China’s “nine-dash line” had no legal basis for its claims to historic rights to resources in the South China Sea and that none of the land features met the requirements of an exclusive economic zone for China. The Chinese foreign ministry dismissed the court’s award, saying it had no binding force. Xi too is doubling down. Leading up to the 19th Party Congress, Xi counted “South China Sea reef and island construction” among his top accomplishments and boasted of his “successful prosecution of maritime rights.”[12]

Xi Jinping’s foreign policy thus far has involved a “mix of status quo adherence to international norms, grievance and a growing confidence and leadership.”[13] After the 19th Party Congress, the international community should not expect mere continuity with the past five years. The balance of probabilities is that China will take a more nationalistic path, with a strong party aiming to remake the international environment, where necessary, in ways that will help it achieve Xi’s stated desire to rejuvenate the Chinese nation. This will not mean we can expect a concerted push for Chinese hegemony in the Western Pacific. Nor will Xi try to recreate the old Chinese tributary system. Rather, we can expect the odd combination of grievance and more confident leadership that produced the South China Sea policy to become more pronounced features of Chinese foreign policy.[14] While norm adherence will continue, there is likely to be a greater willingness to break with these norms if they conflict with the larger aims.


[1] Chris Buckley, Xi Jinping Unveils China’s New Leaders but No Clear Successor, N.Y. Times (Oct. 24, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/24/world/asia/xi-jinping-china.html

[2] The Congress elevated Mr. Xi, 64, to the same exalted status as the nation’s founder, Mao Zedong, by enshrining “Xi Jinping Thought” into the party’s constitution. Id.

[3] Jiayang Fan, At the Communist Party Congress, Xi Jinping Plays the Emperor, The New Yorker (Oct. 18, 2017), https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/at-the-communist-party-congress-xi-jinping-plays-the-emperor

[4] Id.

[5] Charles Campbell, Xi Jinping Becomes China’s Most Powerful Leader Since Mao Zedong, Time (Oct. 24, 2017), http://time.com/4994618/xi-jinping-china-19th-congress-ccp-mao-zedong-constitution/

[6] Xi boldly declared that China “is resolved to never give up its own legitimate rights and interests” and would never “swallow the bitter fruit of damage to its own interests.” Rush Doshi, Xi Jinping Just Made It Clear Where China’s Foreign Policy Is Headed, Wash. Post. (Oct. 25, 2017), https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/10/25/xi-jinping-just-made-it-clear-where-chinas-foreign-policy-is-headed/?utm_term=.9fb1bb12eaae

[7] China Power, How Much Trade Transits the South China Sea?, Ctr. for Strategic and Int’l Studies, https://chinapower.csis.org/much-trade-transits-south-china-sea/

[8] Id.

[9] See Doshi, supra note 6.

[10] Dan De Luce, The U.S. Navy Wants to Show China Who’s Boss, Foreign Policy (Dec. 14, 2015), http://foreignpolicy.com/2015/12/14/the-u-s-navy-wants-to-show-china-whos-boss/

[11] China’s Maritime Disputes, Council on Foreign Relations, https://www.cfr.org/interactives/chinas-maritime-disputes?cid=otr-marketing_use-china_sea_InfoGuide#!/chinas-maritime-disputes?cid=otr-marketing_use-china_sea_InfoGuide

[12] See Doshi, supra note 6.

[13] Jeffrey Bader, How Xi Jinping Sees the World, The Brookings Inst. (Feb. 2016), https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/xi_jinping_worldview_bader-1.pdf

[14] Nick Bisley, What the 19th Party Congress Means for the Rest of the World, China Policy Institute (Oct. 18, 2017), https://cpianalysis.org/2017/10/18/what-the-19th-party-congress-means-for-the-rest-of-the-world/

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